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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Understanding Walkability Thinking with Our Feet

by Chris Bradshaw

For the past year, US public attention has been focused on the global scale: global warming, the instability of large foreign oil suppliers, and the sudden rise in gas prices, a belated adjustment to Hubbert’s Peak. The recent US housing bust seems to be partly fed by Americans’ lust for living in the “paradise” of car-dependent neighborhoods.

But the focus should also be on the local scale, in true environmental fashion, the scale where we walk. Our “think globally, act locally” slogan might need to change to “talk globally, walk locally.” We need to use our feet to reduce our footprint.

Mankind got to this point in our evolution relying on our two feet and our superior intelligence. Today our intelligence has invented a means of transportation that we both over-use and under-utilize. By that, I mean we drive more than we must, and even with all that driving, we under-utilize the cars we depend on.

Scale and “location efficiency”

The number-one reason walking is in decline is the embrace of the car and our society’s decision to treat it as a private consumer product, although driven on a public network. The number-one reason people can’t reverse that dependency and go back to more walking is that most of the built form that has been constructed in the last three-quarters of a century was designed with the assumption that people had their own family car, and more recently, their own personal car. What we have is sprawl: more land per person, less clustering of services, deeper property setbacks.

And even the town centers constructed before the arrival of car ubiquity have lost their walkability. Corner stores, the stand-alone commercial hubs of streets, have mostly disappeared. Main streets have lost their basic services to big-box formats further away, and the businesses remaining have cannibalized their neighbors to get more parking, leaving wounds in the continuous streetfronts. Also lost are the area’s frequent transit and middle/working class customer base. Most of all, those remaining business have a larger-scale focus; they assume that their customers come by car, and that the other sidewalk denizens are ne’er-do-wells. So, they don’t keep displays refreshed, pick up litter outside their entrance, quickly deal with graffiti, or relate proactively with city hall. The few main streets that have bounced back are dominated by boutiques and restaurants, more in number and higher in price than the walk-in locals can or will support.

This commercial spurning of the neighborhood scale is matched by governments and other service industries for their own outlets, locating them where car access is best, although they can easily see that such locations, in “power centers” and industrial parks, are walking deserts and barely on the transit grid.

What you access the most has to be closest…

Life is arranged in scales, just as it is for animals. What you access the most has to be closest; what is the most objectionable and dangerous should be far away. Animals pick territories and locate their nest or den by such principles, and we design kitchens and offices the same way.

For decades we have observed the latter part of that, ignoring the first. Planners talk about compatibility, giving credence to the average house buyer’s perception that all non-residential uses are bad to live near. The result is large stores with large parking lots, rather than neighborhood-sized ones with no off-street parking, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The view of open countryside they sought through their living room windows disappears in the next phase of development two years later. In contrast, location efficiency focuses on complementarity, the quality of being near the most frequently accessed services; but planners and citizens have conspired to ignore this quality. Socio-economic “mono-cultures” result: where does a neighborhood of families with young children find 12–14 year olds for babysitting?

Each scale has characteristics that can also be arranged hierarchically. Below is a table to show how they are arranged.

When we substituted cars for walking, we shifted the scale at which activities of a daily nature occurred. Cars not only brought with them the need to widen roads, expand parking, and weigh down household budgets with ballooning transportation costs, but changed the frequency of trips, the formality of the trip, and the amount of time we spend at each destination. Shopping malls have sought to get so big because retail experts know that the further people travel, the longer they stay and the more they spend. The relationship is based on getting value from effort and expense.

The same goes for urban transportation in general. The trips to conveniences are always greater in number than trips to work. The latter, though, are repetitive, and workers stay longer at the trip’s destination, so they tend to be longer in distance as well. It is these that the transit system focuses on, though, in order to avoid the expensive and politically difficult job of widening roads to the city core. The solution is “rapid transit,” which is an oxymoron, really, since in order to be rapid (to cover long distances as quickly as cars), they have to miss the dense clusters of shops and offices which convenience trips focus on. The traditional “milk run” routes are left with older fleets, high fares (thanks to fixed fares, the price per km is higher), and low frequencies. Sadly, the equally long suburb-to-suburb commutes are simply ignored.

… retail experts know that the further people travel, the longer they stay and the more they spend.

Another issue the table raises is the role of the car. The car isn’t designed for any one of them. The idea that a longer trip “nests” several modes, to make it fit better, is obliterated by those embracing the car. Walking to the main street, taking the bus to the inter-city terminal, and traveling very fast to another terminal in another city, where the modes will be connected in reverse in the same way, is more sensitive, and it ensures speed occurs in larger vehicles with higher efficiencies and greater safety to self and other road users, while local walking environments aren’t undercut. But using the car for all parts of the same trip results in its being the neighborhood-streets bully and the highway midget that is tossed by the drafts of semis.

Personalwalkingsecond to minutecmsseconds
Householdwalkingminute to hourmetersminutes
Street/Blockwalkinghour to day10s of metershalf-hours
Neighborhoodwalking, cyclingday to weekup to a kmhours
City/regiontransit, driving/riding in a car, bicyclingweek to month10s of kmshours to a day
Nationaltrain, intercity bus, airplane, car/RVmonth to year100s of kms up to a week
Globalairplane, ship (only for cargo, these days)year to a lifetime1000s of kmsmonth to a year

The car is the second or third best mode for several scales, but our abandonment of walking and transit environments and their interconnectivity has given the inferior mode of travel, the car, fixating appeal because it doesn’t require any waiting in stations or on sidewalks. It also provides something we are told we should expect, ironically, in public places: privacy. But it also provides isolation: no new acquaintances, no assistance in an accident. But people use cars for so many longer trips because our private car ownership regime makes it cheaper to do so, rather than leave it home, only to have to rent a duplicate at the other end. Unless we go to share-car access, we won’t be able to restore walkable distances and densities.

… abandonment of walking and transit environments and their inter-connectivity has given the inferior mode of travel, the car, fixating appeal …

The loss of the corner store, I opined in a chapter on walkability for the book, Beyond the Car: Essays on the Car Culture (1995), caused us to compensate by making our houses bigger to accommodate the less frequent trips for food. This required more storage in the form of a freezer, a larger fridge, and more pantry shelving (how many people have turned their basement or garage into a mini-warehouse for bulk purchases?). At its heyday, the corner store was the block’s refrigerator (or “ice box” as it was called then), with the family buying only enough food to consume on the same day). Today, those who live with high location efficiency buy groceries almost every day, a practice that allows food to be fresher, for sales to be taken advantage of, and doesn’t require a car. It is not surprising that in the years during the post-war sprawl-fest, housing sizes have doubled while family sizes have halved.

The result is that main streets didn’t survive the shift to the suburbs. They were replaced, first, by strips and malls, both of which are now succumbing to the big-box “center,” a large quadrant of land at the intersection of two freeways so large that, despite the appearance of clustering, the customers tend to drive from store to store, and there are no common facilities such as washrooms or benches, let alone trees or canopies. If any transit service exists there, it is infrequent and the single stop is hard to find. Even if people live within walking distance of one, they will find it a tough go: the arterial road that circles the development and fencing around the housing are major barriers.

Elements of walkability

The interface between motorists and pedestrians would improve if cars were shared. But most of walkability is dependent on qualities of the built form.

At its heyday, the corner store was the block’s refrigerator …

After location efficiency (http:\\www.walkscore.com will rate any address using Google Maps), the most significant element of walkability is “eyes on the street.” This is the phrase Jane Jacobs (in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961, p. 35) used to describe the effect on walkers of having other people using the sidewalks at the same time; having owners and staff of properties flanking the sidewalks looking out on the street at frequent intervals, even looking out for children, the elderly, the disabled, and visitors. Without this effect, streets can take on the appearance of being derelict: weeds, broken benches and trees, graffiti. On residential streets, the same effect is reflected in well-tended front yards and people sitting on porches, working in garages, or tending to gardens. David Engwicht (Street Reclaiming, 2000) shows more participatory and less expensive ways for making streets more beckoning to those on foot.

… even with all that driving, we under-utilize the cars we depend on.

The next element is the quality of the walking thoroughfares. Sidewalks need to be on both sides of streets. They need to be the right width, between 6 and 12 feet. Formal crosswalks are needed at intersections, regardless if there are signals or just stop signs or traffic circles (by allowing drivers to avoid stopping by slowing down, circles jeopardize walkers’ rights-of-way). Stop lines need to be ahead of the crosswalk lines, so drivers don’t crowd (and intimidate) those crossing on foot. Street trees are needed, both to provide cover from rain and sun, and to ease the wind. They also justify the inclusion of a grass median or verge, which both provides better separation from cars and provides a location for the grade-separation at driveway entrances without having to depress the sidewalk at each one.

The final element is mental. First, each citizen should accept that walking is our most inclusive, least expensive (to the traveler and to the municipality) and most benign form of transportation. This attitude should spread to personal and collective decision making. Walkers should expect their environment to be first-class. When people drive, they must do so in a way that encourages walking. Location efficiency requires an end to neighborhood opposition to adding denser housing and new commercial, as the latter will make locals’ trips shorter and the former will provide added customers for business, to reduce prices and increase selection.

All people need to express their preference for smaller shops which, after considering car costs, are actually cheaper …

Some business categories — coffee shops, small bank branches, and non-chain specialty-food and personal-care shops — “get it;” others’ business plans are still on steroids. All people need to express their preference for smaller shops which, after considering car costs, are actually cheaper and, with a little wait for personal orders, will have as good selection as the larger ones.

Chris Bradshaw is a retired municipal planning official who has been active in walking advocacy and car-sharing. A former leader of the Green Party of Canada, he lives “car-lite” in downtown Ottawa. He can be reached at: hearth@ties.ottawa.on.ca.

[17 dec 08]

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